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Linux Netbooks: Hit Microsoft where it ain't

Linux-based Netbooks have a better chance of displacing Microsoft if they're designed with the smartphone market in mind, rather than the personal computer market.

In open source or in product development generally, one of the biggest mistakes is to take on a deeply entrenched incumbent on its own turf. Almost inevitably, if you play someone else's game, even if you're a little cheaper/faster/better, you're going to lose. Inertia favors the incumbent, and there's a whole lot of inertia involved in switching vendors.

For this reason, I agree wholeheartedly with Bill Weinberg's suggestion that Linux's opportunity in Netbooks is to focus on the mobile side of the market, rather than bringing a traditional, personal computer bent to the market.

Weinberg writes:

...(O)ne strategic error made by purveyors of Linux Netbooks was to covet the volumes of the global mobile telephony market while following the business models and channels of the legacy notebook marketplace. Linux fans--.orgs, Linux ISVs, and device OEMS--unfortunately approached the Netbook opportunity as a downward extension of the desktop and portable PC business, with volumes of 297M units in 2008 (IDC).

Instead, the Linux ecosystem needs to envision Netbooks (and MIDs and tablets) as building on the worldwide mobile handset business, with its 1.28B annual unit shipments (Gartner) the most lucrative slice of which, smartphones, constitutes 14 percent (ABI) with 20 percent annual growth rates.

Microsoft owns the traditional personal computer market, and probably will forever. But don't lose hope: the best strategies going forward are disruptive, in the Clayton Christensen sense. Microsoft is weak in mobile. This is where Linux proponents should focus their "desktop" strategies.

Apple is gaining on Microsoft in personal computers as much because of its iPhone revolution as its beautiful laptops. If Linux wants to win in Netbooks, and it can, it must do so by undermining Microsoft, not by confronting its desktop dominance directly. Netbooks must be more "Net" than "book," just as mobile phones are more about "mobile" than "phone."

If this is true, Google's Android, which is targeting smartphones first and Netbooks second, may have the upper hand on Intel's Moblin, which aims at Netbooks first, and is largely designed as a Windows replacement.

Malcolm Gladwell recently reminded the world that David beats Goliath with a sling, not a sword. Linux-based Netbooks, playing David to Microsoft's Goliath, should approach the market with a mobile bias, rather than with a personal computer bias.

"Hit 'em where they ain't," said Willie Keeler, which is as true in hitting baseballs as it is in competing with Microsoft.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.